22 – 16th August 2005 – Addis Ababa,Ethiopia

Distance Cycled : 16,479km

Welcome to Ethiopia!  Well, we’re 2600km from N’Djamena as the crow flies and have covered the distance in the last ten days (though we usually manage much less in a whole month) and yet we have barely cycled 10km…  Thanks to Ethiopian Airlines, we are now safely in Addis Ababa, having flown over Darfur and avoided a bit of rioting in Khartoum as well, trouble sadly having spilled onto the streets in the Sudanese capital following the death of Vice President John Garang.  We are saddened because a chunk of our journey wil not have been pedal-powered but also quite relieved – getting through central Africa was always going to be tricky.

The flight itself went smoothly and we eagerly devoured the food and free magazines provided (not literally in the case of the latter, we weren’t THAT hungry).  You might forgive us for being peckish, though, as the flight took off at 19:30 having been scheduled to leave at 14:45!  Of course Anna had insisted that for once we would be in plenty of time (those of you who know Luke will appreciate the significance of this) and so we were at the airport at 10:30.  Then came a five hour wait before we could check in.  With our bikes swaddled in cardboard and parcel tape, and our panniers wrapped in rice sacks we hoped nothing would go wrong.  It was a huge relief when, at 2am, a bleary-eyed baggage handler emerged wheeling our bikes into the arrivals hall at Addis Ababa.  Never before have we been so worried about two inanimate objects!  Thus reunited, we bedded down on a bench in the (thankfully rather salubrious) Bole International Airport and awaited dawn.  At 7am, fortified by a cup of spiced tea, we set off towards the centre of the city and into the chilly morning.

Addis Ababa lies about 2500m above sea level and so it is the highest point we have visited since crossing the Pyrenees.  It felt decidedly chilly after the suffocating heat of West Africa – although still less of a shock to the system than landing at Heathrow in April, Anna confirms.  Despite niggles from Anna’s bike, we negotiated our way through the morning traffic, and had acquired a decent patina of grey mud, exhaust fumes and Amharic greetings by the time we arrived at our destination.  The friendly landlady of the small and quiet Lido Hotel didn’t seem to mind in the least that we were arriving before breakfast and we were soon installed in a room with not only electricity but hot water too.  We then promptly went to sleep for several hours to recover from a rather exhausting 24 hours.

We gradually came round to being in a new region – climatically, linguistically, gastronomically and altitudinally!  The air is slightly rarefied at this height but hopefully we should be used to it soon.  Addis Ababa reminds us a lot of another high-up city – namely La Paz, the Bolivian capital.
It too has steep streets, an abundance of beggars and pitiful street children, a chill feel when the wind blows, but also a similar vibrancy and friendliness.  The child beggars are really distressing, and it’s noticeable how numerous they are – far more than we saw in Bamako or Accra or any other city in West Africa.  The mud and the drizzle only add to the aura of despair surrounding the toddlers on their bit of soggy cardboard or the 30-year-old mother sitting with her brood, frail, wrapped in blankets and looking twice her age.  It’s impossible to help everyone but equally impossible (for us) to pass by without giving a few coins to someone.  One birr is worth around 6p, so we feel even impoverished cycle-tourists can afford to give that much a few times a day.  At least 6p will actually buy you something here – a cup of tea can be as little as 0.5 birr.

Food is rather a fascination for us, and it seems that Ethiopia will not disappoint.  On our first night in Addis we met up with a friend from University who happened to be here in the capital, and enjoyed a meal in a very busy restaurant – our first taste of authentic Ethiopian fare.  Since then, we’ve eaten quite a lot more (as is our wont) and have been to the Ethnological Museum as well, which was really very informative about food among many other things.  So here follows a brief guide to all things edible in Ethiopia…

First sit yourself down in front of a mesob, effectively a big basket shaped like a mushroom onto which a tray of food is placed, from which you eat.  Whatever the dish served, the tray will invariably be lined with a huge pancake-like thing – this is injera.  It is Ethiopia’s answer to bread (though more recognisable wheat-flour loaves are also found) and, when spread on the tray, it acts as plate, cutlery and starchy accompaniment all rolled into one.  In fact, you get an extra chunk rolled up and arranged on the tray in front of you.  Now, long before we set foot in Ethiopia, we had read descriptions of injera which likened it to carpet underlay, hot towels, flannel and various other things.  At first it did look disconcertingly grey and rather like a neatly-folded serviette and undoubtedly has a slightly odd flavour.  It is, however, decidedly edible if very bland – perhaps just as well given that sauces are quite spicy!  Injera is made from ground tef, a cereal indigenous to Ethiopia which is particularly suited to the highland plateau environment and also happens to be highly nutritious – high levels of iron and calcium are especially good news for women here, given the average number of children borne!  Once made, the injera dough/batter is fermented (traditionally in a pit in the ground but possibly in a plastic box these days) and then cooked on a sizeable griddle.  It’s not actually hot when you eat it, though.  Anna likes injera quite a lot, a fact perhaps explained by early exposure to German sourdough bread and a predilection for eating raw crumpets (don’t ask).  In the Christian Orthodox tradition, Wednesday and Friday are fasting days and no meat is consumed as a consequence, so veggie food will be easy to come by at least twice a week – more good news!

Not to be out-veggied, Luke has already sampled another Ethiopian delicacy called kitfo which is akin to steak tartare.  As yet, he has not braved tere sega, essentially raw meat, which you carve up yourself with an evil-looking curved knife and eat with a mixed spice powder, known as berbere.  The restaurants specialising in this dish sound a bit like Smithfields Market…  To celebrate Luke’s birthday we played safe and went to a European-style restaurant though we did brave the Ethiopian red wine.  Actually quite palatable considering it cost the same as college red used to – less than three quid a bottle.

Altogether more palatable are the local drinks.  Tej is honey wine.  It’s rather cloudy and is served little, long-necked bottles – you drink straight from the bottle – and comes in a variety of strengths and qualities.  The rougher stuff is akin to scrumpy and if you order derek you’ll be served a tej that is dry and strong.  Small glass cups of sweet, scented tea dot the tables in Addis Ababa’s ubiquitous cafes, and it seems to be a national pastime to sip a cupful with a friend or a newspaper for company.  The flavour varies depending on what’s been added to the brew – cloves, cardamon, ginger and even thyme and rosemary all seem to be popular.  Ethiopia is also the home of coffee – the word itself derives from the Kaffa region in the southwest where the plants are grown.  Coffee beans represent one of the country’s most important cash crops.  There are also quite a few buna beats (as coffee shops are called) serving up espresso, cappuccino and latte thanks to the Italian influence.

Mussolini’s army invaded Ethiopia in 1936 and the Italian occupation lasted barely five years, the country being “liberated” by the British in May 1941.  Given the brevity of the Italian rule and the fact that it ended over 60 years ago, there are still quite a few incongruously Italian influences – food, drink, monuments and buildings.  Just this year, one of the stelae pilfered by Il Duce was repatriated and re-erected at the ancient capital of the Aksumite Kingdom.  It had stood in a piazza in Rome for more than half a century.  There are masses of posters around celebrating this momentous homecoming – obviously Ethiopians hold their cultural heritage in high regard.  Sadly, we’re heading south from Addis Ababa and so will miss seeing the 2000 year-old stele in Aksum.  Also to the north are the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the castles of Gondar and the Simien Mountains – so we will have to come back another time to visit all of those!

We did manage to get a glimpse of northern Ethiopian musical and artistic traditions at the Ethnological Museum, however.  Some pretty strident music was blaring out beside the displays of traditional musical instruments, which included a fantastic, metre-long brass trumpet, a collection of metal sistrums (sort of ecclesiastical football rattles) as well as bamboo, bone and wooden flutes, krars and bagannas – these being, respectively, 6- and 10-stringed lyres.  We’re hoping we might hear flute music in the highlands further south, as shepherds apparently still play them to soothe their flocks and, perhaps, to ease their own loneliness.  There was fair less explanatory blurb to accompany the museum’s collection of bright and skilfully painted icons.  The style varied over the centuries and several schools have been identified by art historians.  Here are some of the more amusing ones!

  • Masters of the Sagging Cheeks
  • Masters of the Eyebrows
  • Masters of the Small Chin

While waiting for our parcel of bike bits and goodies (including a jar of Marmite – how British!) we thought we should get a bit of fresh air.  It took a bit of locating, but we finally found the path leading up to the Wacha Mikael church on the outskirts of Addis.  Two small boys chanting “give me one birr, one birr, one birr” accompanied us as we clambered up a steep and slippery path, incredibly finding ourselves among blue-silver eucalyptus, fragrant herbs and lush green grass within minutes.  The church itself, rock-hewn and dating to the 12th century is in a state of extreme decrepitude and is largely overgrown with shrubs and flooded with rainwater.  It seems a shame more use can’t be made of the entrance fee that is charged – 6 pence for Ethiopians but a quite steep 3 quid for tourists.  The way down was much easier going, and Anna sporadically attempted to understand what the smaller of the two boys was saying in a mixture of Amharic and English..it always seemed to end in “just one birr, one birr”, though…  Boy number two was more often than not incapacitated by the temporary repair to his left flip flop, which kept giving way.  Every few minutes he would pause to fix it before hurtling down the slope to catch us up again!

The long-awaited parcel, having been delayed by security checks and then strikes at Heathrow, landed yesterday, and we were pleasantly surprised that it took a “mere” three hours at the airport to collect it.  After the sagas in Casablanca and Accra we were expecting an all-day slog…  A further surprise was the total we had to pay for the services at this end – 46 Ethiopian cents or roughly 3 pence!  A decent bike mechanic had been recommended by a fellow cycle-tourist we met here, and proved every bit as skilled as we’d been told.  In three hours or so, he completed all of the work while we sat in a cafe reading our newly-acquired guidebooks and getting very excited about what lies ahead!

So after a lengthier than planned sojourn in Addis, we head south to Lake Ziway and then on through the Rift Valley towards the Kenyan border.  Now we have rounded the great “bulge” of Africa and it is apparently a mere 5216km to Cape Town as the crow flies- ah, we’re nearly there then!  So, until next time…


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